How Do You Solve a Problem Like Afghanistan?
Ricks on Kilcullen’s central argument:
His [Kilcullen’s] bottom line is that there are two real options in Afghanistan: Either tell the Kabul government we are pulling out, or put in enough troops to actually break the cycle of corruption, which he said would be a minimum of about 40,000. “We either put in enough to control, or we get out.” The worst thing we could do, he added, is put in enough troops to get more people killed but not enough to do anything to break change the behavior of corrupt officials. Also, he said, it is more about what you do than the actual number of troops — “If you do it wrong, you could put it a million troops and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Can someone explain to me how 40,000 troops breaks a cycle of political corruption in another country? And in this case, Afghanistan?
I don’t want to be mean here, but this reminds me of the classic economist in a rowboat with a can of beans joke—-“assume a can-opener.”
“Assume a non-corrupt government.” Or assume somehow that troops and security will solve endemic corruption.
The only way I see troops “controlling” Afghanistan is through a direct, old-school colonial takeover, Vice-Regency style. At the end of the day, though I think unintended, this is where Kilcullen’s logic may be leading. At the very least, the US/NATO would have to install a strongman dictator.
A US surge in Afghanistan only delays the inevitable political confrontation that has to occur in that country.
The initial late 2001 US “shock and awe” invasion in a country as underdeveloped as Afghanistan created an opening moment that allowed for a quasi-political shakeup. The Bonn Agreement was inked, the government was sworn in, the Taliban (at that point) had been ejected, and then the country was basically abandoned to make way for the invasion of Iraq.
While COIN thinkers like Kilcullen will point (legitimately) to the failed follow-up military strategy for securing the country, I think the deeper truth is that the Bonn Paradigm has failed in Afghanistan at the political level. The recent elections in Afghanistan and the entire framework of an attempted centralized state build-up is central to that Bonn framework. Whether this could have worked had it received more resources from 2002-2007 is worth asking as a hypothetical but at this point is academic. The fact is that political consolidation has failed.
All of the discussion of an Afghanistan surge and COIN strategies simply dances around the edges and never gets what to what I believe is the core question: what is the political endgame if the state-led operation has failed?
Here follows a list of many of the key native political actors in Afghanistan:
–Drugs and Warlords
Consisting of both The Quetta Shura (i.e. Mullah Omar and the old Taliban leadership) and newer Taliban 2.0 factions on the ground. This includes the all-important Pakistan sanctuary.
–The Official Government
Some eventual deal has to be worked out between all those groups. A surge may bring one or more of these groups to a bargaining position. But a centralized state that becomes transparently non-corrupt, modern and democratic which governs in a non-sectarian fashion over the entirety of the country is not going to happen.
Afghanistan has seen 30 years of horrific war and is home to a pervasive drug trade. It’s a country without a strong resource base kept afloat by volatile money flows: drugs, international aid, the weapons trade, etc. In that context, corruption IS the reality. It’s the way to make money–which is why, as I’ve said before, I actually think corruption is the wrong word.
When capital runs that loose through a country without a system to soften it, invest in it, regularize it, then it’s headed to where it is now.
The “high-point” of state functioning in Afgahnistan was an extremely weak central state that had essentially no control in the countryside prior to the Soviet invasion.
Kilcullen’s make or break logic is predicated on the central-ity of a state. It is the key flaw in his theory. If you don’t assume the centrality of a consolidaated state, if you don’t assume the necessity of and ability to construct such a state from the ground floor, then other options are on the table.
But whatever option is chosen, nothing can be done by the West about Afghanistan’s corruption. Not in the kind of time frame the US can logically support (both in terms of troop numbers and cash). It will take decades (if ever) for that country to recover and reach a modicum of stability and economic progress. The difference between 20,000 and 40,000 US troops is not the deciding factor.
I have no idea what endgame in Afghanistan looks like. I only know what won’t happen. In Iraq, I could tell you some likely outcomes–there were only so many options given the country’s history. But Afghanistan’s history over the last three decades has so wrecked the country, it is really impossible to predict anything.
* For anyone who wants some more background on Afghan corruption, here’s another Ackerman post on the subject.
** For anyone who disagrees with my take and supports Kilcullen’s view, here are his political recommendations from a recent NyTimes op-ed.
Good luck with those I say. Kilcullen thinks the Taliban returns to power absent reforms and a continual US presence. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. (If the US keeps air power in play, how does this happen?) I think a more likely outcome is that the country continues to fragment into various tribal zones with a few city-state like urban centers (Mazir-e-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar?).